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Pro Audio Retail Is Ready for 2018

The educational and house of worship markets are buoyant, purchasers are becoming savvier about technology and business is strong nationwide.

According to the pro audio industry’s major online retailers, the educational and house of worship markets are buoyant, purchasers are becoming savvier about technology and, while the major population centers on the East and West Coasts represent a significant percentage of sales, business is reportedly strong nationwide.   

Drilling down into the product lists, digital mixers and speakers stand out as bestsellers, and there has been something of an uptick in wireless microphone sales, thanks to the imminent loss of access to the 600 MHz frequency spectrum.

60 Seconds with Craig Johnson, CEO of Full Compass

The two retail companies overlap somewhat in their customer bases but follow two different approaches. At Sweetwater, headquartered in Ft. Wayne, IN, “We tend to try to build relationships one-on-one,” says Mike Brinker, pro audio group manager—merchandising. “That leads us down a path with a lot of customers. We do anywhere from entry-level to mid-level to professional.”

Full Compass, based in Madison, WI, and marking 40 years in business, sells directly to end users, especially in the educational and house of worship sectors, according to Ryan Mauer, the company’s director of sales. “But we also have a large part of our business that ends up, through small AV contractors, in integration markets, into corporate AV, and putting large packages together for the audio and video chain. That really creates a unique scenario for us in terms of how to stock product and which items to have available for our customers.”

Mauer reports that, for Full Compass, collaborative spaces and corporate bring-your-own-device environments such as conference rooms and huddle spaces are becoming much more prevalent. “Those worlds are combining for us right now. We’re probably not the only ones experiencing that, but we are seeing that those couple of things have an impact on the business,” he says.

While Sweetwater sells a very broad spectrum of products, says Brinker, “Specifically in pro audio, we do a lot of speakers and, as a single category, mixers do extraordinarily well, especially digital mixers. They’re really the future, because digital connectivity has replaced copper snakes for us.”

Digital desks cross multiple categories, he continues, enabling recording, stage monitoring and virtual soundchecks. At the high end, consoles such as Avid’s S6 are selling well into educational and house of worship applications. “It’s probably the most competitive and the biggest single category for us in pro audio,” says Brinker.

Sweetwater Scored in 2017

For both companies, the FCC’s auction of much of the 600 MHz spectrum to carriers such as T-Mobile has focused attention on the wireless mic market. Existing customers with RF equipment that is about to become non-compliant are moving quickly to replace it with gear operating outside the 600 MHz band. “As we expected, the house of worship market is obviously going to be key,” says Mauer, “as well as any place where wireless ends up—so broadcast is there as well.”

Customers who weathered the loss of the 700 MHz spectrum to HDTV broadcast are generally aware of this latest spectrum crunch, Mauer continues. As for other customers, he says, “I think the end markets are pretty well educated, and if they’re not, I think we’re doing a pretty good job from a salesperson and technical perspective to get that done. Frankly, that’s what we do probably as well or better than any of our competition.”

Brinker agrees that the market is better informed this time around, not least because some of the politics around the 600 MHz auction made headline news. Sweetwater’s uptick in RF equipment sales has been given a boost by the trade-in programs offered by manufacturers such as Shure and Sennheiser, he says. “It has been a big push, not just for us but for everybody who sells wireless.”

That first round, affecting the 700 MHz band, encouraged the vendors to get their R&D teams innovating, comments Brinker. “They’ve had to come out with new models and new categories, and when you do that, you get incremental improvements. Wireless is pretty exciting right now.”

Sweetwater’s sales into the educational market have brought about a symbiotic relationship. “We have a lot of fantastic relationships with different universities and large school districts around the country,” reports Brinker. “We help them with all of their needs and their programs, and of course we end up employing a lot of the guys and gals that graduate from the technology programs.”

Mauer has observed the market morphing as clients increasingly think like consumers, even when they are purchasing on behalf of a business, thanks to a certain dominant e-commerce company. “We’re watching the younger generation of buyers, the Amazon generation, doing some significant part of their research virtually, before they engage for technical assistance—if they even do. They’re doing the bulk of the work, and then it’s about the supply chain that can support that product line. That’s where a transition is occurring.”

Full Compass •

Sweetwater •